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How tech giant Airbnb is rewriting the rulebook on domestic architecture and fueling a housing crisis

Thanks to the ‘sharing economy’, domestic space is less a private realm than a commodity. Can design make this process work for everyone and not just homeowners and investors, asks Luis Ortega Govela?

The home no longer exists. The way we live both socially and economically is changing rapidly and with it the landscapes we inhabit. Exactly a century after Le Corbusier drew Maison Dom-ino, the adaptability of architecture is at last pushing past the disappearance of partition walls.

In five years, Airbnb has re-purposed an unprecedented amount of architecture around the world. What used to be the fortress of the family and the individual is now a marketable asset. Airbnb at its most basic is an accommodation website with an online marketplace that allows anyone with a house, shed, igloo or inflatable mattress to easily reach a base of clients. It’s easy to use: you select a date and a location and you instantly get a never-ending list of ‘cosy rooms’, ‘stylish lofts’ and ‘charming homes’ with pictures to match. The images on the website form an architectural digest of contemporary domesticity; a bricolage of IKEA and designer furniture inserted into more or less identical volumes.

In one move the company has recast the domestic sphere as a productive factory, taking a cut of every commodity it produces. It is now valued at 10 billion dollars. As Airbnb continues to grow, each rental listing made by each amateur innkeeper inches us toward the death of the home and the rise of transient living.

Airbnb has enabled buildings around the world to be reclaimed, regardless of their initial purposes. These spaces remain in their original built state but have now become a hybrid between home, office and hotel. What emerges is that people are adapting to architecture more than architecture adapts to them. In terms of design, this means that successful houses must be generic enough to appeal to the masses, but also differentiate themselves through signature features that will make the stay a valuable experience. This framing of house design is completely new and could bring with it the rise of an equally complete redefinition of the house as a type − a space not solely held onto by a single owner or owners but constantly shared, traded and swapped. While Airbnb is not the sole instigator of such a domestic revolution, it has certainly commodified, democratised and packaged it most completely (and profitably) within a neoliberal global marketplace.

Whether the Airbnb effect will have a positive or negative impact on the city is the subject of heated debate. In New York this week a campaign against the company launched under the banner Share Better. They accuse legislators of failing to keep pace with the Silicon Valley giant. The so-called sharing economy that Airbnb has instigated dodges zoning regulations and fuels the housing crisis: if you can make more money renting out your flat on Airbnb than by having a full-time tenant, that unit will be taken off the market. Airbnb, rather than addressing these issues, has decided to mask them with a new new logo and website that eulogise their perverse jargon of ‘sharing’ and ‘community’, in a campaign targeting city decision makers as much as potential customers. Coincidentally, the UK’s Communities Secretary Eric Pickles recently promised to deregulate planning in London even further, permitting short-term holiday lets by private homeowners in the city for the first time since the 1970s.

Amid this controversy comes Airbnb’s newest branding venture. A Place Called Home is a site-specific installation for the London Design Festival that sits in the middle of Trafalgar Square, a spot held in previous years by schemes from Zaha Hadid, David Chipperfield and David Adjaye. The installation comes from a partnership between the festival and Airbnb who asked four design studios to ‘rethink the modern home’. However, while four resulting shacks appear to tackle the many issues this global network of guests and hosts raises, it sticks thoroughly on-brand, ultimately celebrating the world of interiors that form the core of Airbnb’s appeal.

‘The so-called sharing economy that Airbnb has instigated dodges zoning regulations and fuels the housing crisis’

While the four designs come from different studios, they all inhabit the same appropriated architectural armature of the shed, a strategy that relays architecture as a matter of volumetric constraint rather than a tool to rethink the contemporary dwelling. The proposals fluctuate between contextual and conceptual. Jasper Morrison’s proposal is a house for a pigeon fancier (‘Who else would choose to live in the middle of Trafalgar Square?’) while Studioilse has created a fragrance called ‘The Smell of Home’ that is accompanied by a soundtrack filled with noises related to contemporary domesticity. Patternity, a London-based design firm that prides itself in ‘seeing pattern everywhere’, has installed three oversized kaleidoscopes and patterned wallpaper that covers the entirety of the shed. The last of the four proposals comes from Raw Edges, who have used a movable archival system of the ’70s to create an adaptable interior. If there is one thing that these designs laud it is the quirky interior realm − the curious web of objects, memories and associations that is homogenised and simultaneously coveted by Airbnb. The brief for the installation called for proposals that could fundamentally critique the established concept of the home rather than reaffirm it. It is frustrating that when it came to it, such challenging intentions have not been realised.

The shed by Ilse Crawford of Studioilse seems to be asking the most relevant question: HOME? in big white neon letters is perched on the roof of her piece. It is through basic but fundamental questions like this that architects and designers should engage with shifting modes of living, and the rise of new domestic models.

A Place Called Home, in conjunction with Airbnb’s re-brand, attempts to cement the Silicon Valley, pseudo-Leftist idea that property ownership and material consumption are no longer what the contemporary urbanite desires, favouring instead products offering connections and experiences. It is  part of a constant tug of war: on the one side we are saying the home is going through a process of deep transformation, that the idea of ownership is passé, that the good life is something more than amassing stuff in a house, but on the other we still want that pool, we want that jacuzzi, that huge fridge, set in an exotic interior. Airbnb and its pavilion outposts sit somewhere between opportunity and threat.

A destabilising agent in a dysfunctional housing market might do some good, but even a stopped clock is right twice a day. A host’s focus on the interior as producer of the precious sense of hospitality is co-opted, coveted and aggressively marketed by Airbnb, which spends an estimated $25 million on promotion. Could the company’s efforts be focused instead on research counteracting their ruthless corporatism?

It takes a little bit of insider knowledge to understand that, deeply rooted in the origins of the company, is radical design. The ‘air’ in Airbnb comes from the inflatable mattress, a product that emerges from the pneumatic movement of 1968. This inflated PVC object represents all the frustrations felt by designers at the time about the rigidity of postwar architecture and the impatience towards the confined atmosphere of the bourgeois household. These types of societal transformations resonate with a post-internet world. We are living in a similar transitional moment, and by questioning the nature of home, beyond pigeons and fancy interiors, designers may yet find a way of making the sharing economy benefit everyone as much as it does its shareholders.


Claire Kang is a multidiscplinary artist and designer based in Los Angeles


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